Most Black Americans are all-too-familiar with the idea of “double consciousness”–a sense of identity which is made up of conflicting views. The mind is incessantly at war with itself, all at once seeing Blackness as beautiful, powerful and a source of pride; and as ugly, inferior, and a source of shame.
My childhood was a unique exercise in the concept. I grew up in the 90s, a decade highlighted by an elevation of Afrocentrism. My parents were overjoyed by the ability to instill Black pride and power in their children, in times much different from those in which they grew up. Both of them attended segregated schools for much of their K-12 education, and endured long bus rides and incessant harassment as they became some of the first integrators of their districts. Through personal anecdotes, exposure to culture, and a mandated close studying of Black history–complete with book reports–they guided me toward a strong sense and acceptance of myself as a “beautiful Black princess.” I felt like being Black was the most poppin thing in the whole wide world, and the most powerful.
Then, when I was about 8 years old, reality hit.
I had been acutely aware of the fact that we were the only Black family in our neighborhood; that I was one of two Black girls in my entire elementary school. My parents worked to make it abundantly clear that racism wasn’t just some weird phase America went through back in the day. But the pro-Black bubble of my home shielded me from thoughts that not being among the majority, made me inferior.
Eventually, though, I began to notice signs of the fact that all the history I’d written and read about wasn’t actually over. That I was merely living in a new iteration of old racist bullshit.
I saw it in the strained smile my mother delivered when she told yet another classmate’s mother that yes, we all had the same father. I heard it in my father’s tone in a meeting with my school principal about why Black history outside of slavery wasn’t being taught. I felt it in the hands of my ballet teacher, who would frustratedly push the small of my back during exercises. “You have got to tuck your butt,” she’d yell. “Your kind of body is not right for ballet, so you have to be more conscious of these things.”
When my parents saw that I was wrapping my mind around the nuances of modern-day racism, we started having more detailed conversations about just how far we hadn’t come. About how ideas and observations from decades–and even centuries–prior were more than applicable to present times.
Before those in-depth conversations began, my Dad delivered the same short, sweet, and to-the-point response whenever I would ask why we didn’t celebrate the 4th of July:
“There was no independence for us in 1776.”
Can’t really argue with that. Shut me right up, every time.
Eventually, though, he brought out the big guns, by way of Frederick Douglass’s well-known 4th of July speech. It was delivered in Rochester, NY, to an anti-slavery group who had asked him to come speak at their Independence Day celebration. My father read it to me in its entirety, stopping to draw parallels between the injustices Douglass called out then, and the ones of the present day. In a mic-drop moment, he closed his history lesson with a statement which essentially went:
“If there is anything to celebrate–besides having a day off from school or work–it is that even with nothing, even while being treated like and viewed as less than human, our people built an entire nation.”
And then he fired up the grill, and asked my mom to go inside and grab the sparklers.
I think about, and see excerpts of, that speech every year around this time. However, this was the first year that I took the time to actually read it in full. I could post quote after quote after quote to emphasize how painfully relevant a speech from 1852 is, in 2018. There were two things in particular, though, which resonated most with me. The first is that Douglass’s speech is peppered with eloquent shade which is essentially meant to say “Yall…is u srs?”
It me. Me af.
At one point he asks “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?” Translation: “Ok yes, I got free. And it’s very cute for yall that you’re abolitionists or whatever. But it has to be some sort of joke that you really asked me to come give a speech on a holiday about freedom, as people are still enslaved. Gotta be. And we can fight, to be honest.”
Ok, the final sentence was a slightly hyperbolic translation, but you get my drift.
It makes me equally confused and angry when I’m met with disbelief over the fact that I’m not super jazzed to celebrate America. Just in the past week or so, we’ve had to add swimming at a neighborhood pool, cutting the grass, and knocking something over while funeralizing a loved one to the list of doing-while-Black activities that can get the cops called on you.
I’m sure I don’t need to get into the potential consequences of their arrival.
Fatal police violence, mass incarceration as modern-day enslavement, and gross inequity in educational and financial attainment are only a few of myriad sources of pain and impediments to progress for Black Americans. Many of us who scoff at the idea of celebrating Independence Day, do so because it is salt in a centuries-old open wound. The second stand-out for me in his speech is where Douglass explains just that:
“Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
Those wails still resound, and the chains still exist, just not tangibly.
So no, I am not obligated to celebrate a country which built itself on varying forms of forced grief. I will not hand out cookies and backpats to express my gratitude for having a shot at ~*The American Dream*~ which my predecessors did not. I will, however, make a mac and cheese that slaps with both hands, bring it to the function, and celebrate the awe-inspiring resilience and contributions of Black folks.
We built this nation. We shape its culture. We aren’t going anywhere.
And for that? You’re welcome, America.